Jesus, the Warrior King?

Do the ethics of Jesus (“turn the other cheek,” “love your neighbor,” and “do unto others”) demand that we must always oppose every war? Some Christians (and non-Christians) believe so. Is that what the Bible teaches?

In our last post we examined the unavoidable truth that “our unchanging God condones and even commands war as an instrument of judgment.” We noted carefully that war was ordained by God as an instrument of justice and can only properly be carried out by national civil authorities. We also pointed out that God does not delight in war, but views it as a necessary means of restraining evil and punishing evildoers. His mercy and grace overshadows His condoning of war, as we saw that the Old Testament law included provisions for necessary diplomacy, justice and equity for private citizens. Nonetheless, it would be impossible to read the Old Testament record and conclude that God opposes all war.

That being said, many Christians suggest that the ethics of Jesus in this New Testament age require us to take a different position on the subject of war. They claim that principles like “turn the other cheek,” “love your neighbor as yourself,” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” necessarily preclude a Christian condoning or participating in any war.

Is this claim true? We do not think so.

What do Jesus and the New Testament teach on this subject? Admittedly, I have already asserted in part 1 of this series that “the Bible contains one consistent and harmonious message whenever it speaks to any subject–even the subject of war.” I am convinced that God speaks on this subject with enough clarity to be understood, and in a manner that is completely consistent with His unchangeable character and nature.

That being shown in our first post, and having established God’s approval of properly conducted war efforts in our second post, I suggest that we examine the following proposition:

Neither Jesus nor the New Testament teaches anything that would change God’s opinion of government and war, or the carrying out of His divine purposes through them.

Clearly, not everyone would agree with this statement. Here is one example.

Christianity requires us to seek to amend the condition of man. But war cannot do this. The world is no better for all the wars of five thousand years. Christianity, if it prevailed, would make the earth a paradise. War, where it prevails, makes it a slaughterhouse, a den of thieves, a brothel, a hell. Christianity cancels the laws of retaliation. War is based on that very principle. Christianity is the remedy for all human woes. War produces every woe known to man (The Christian Review – unsigned, no page number).

While the author is quite bold in his assertions, we believe he is wrong. War is often necessary precisely because the world is already “a slaughterhouse, a den of thieves, a brothel, a hell.” Without some form of law enforcement, these atrocities would rule the day in every place! I saw a bumper-sticker a few years ago that said, “Anything war can do, peace can do better!” My first thought was, “Not true! Only war can depose and bring to justice an evil, murderous, dictatorial regime!” “Peace” doesn’t just exist because we want it to. Peace must be brought about, and often the only way to bring about peace is through war against those who oppose peace.

Peace, however, must always be the goal of war. We have already stated that personal revenge is never a right motive for engaging in war. Sadly, many wars are predicated purely on revenge (as the Bible clearly stats in James 4:1-2). Nevertheless, it is still possible for war to be motivated by defensive and protective purposes, and aimed at bringing about justice and a genuine, lasting peace. Although war inevitably produces woe [innocent people almost always die during war], the final end of a just and purposefully conducted war is often the only way to pursue genuine and lasting peace.

Let me remind you of an important assumption in our study of Scripture, which I stated in an earlier post. We must remember that there is a different emphasis in the Old Testament (OT) as compared to the New Testament (NT). The NT deals primarily with God’s relationship to individuals, and says only a little about His relationship or purposes with specific national entities. We must understand that the OT emphasizes more directly the application of biblical ethics nationally (while not neglecting personal ethics), while the NT emphasizes the application of biblical ethics personally (without totally neglecting national elements).

However, when the NT speaks of national ethics it is consistent with the OT. And, when the OT speaks of personal ethics it is consistent with the NT. The confusion is introduced when we try to apply principles designed to govern our personal conduct to the conduct of nations or civil governments. Nations must–by definition–be regulated by different principles.

These differences, as well as other relevant teaching in the words and works of our Lord Jesus Christ, will help us see the truth of our proposition that, “Neither Jesus nor the New Testament teaches anything that would change God’s opinion of government and war, or the carrying out of His divine purposes through them.”

What are those teachings and principles?

  • There is a divine, God-ordained, purpose for civil government

God has ordained all civil government, and defines what their role and function is to be.

Romans 13:1-4 – Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established [ordained (KJV), appointed (NKJV)] by God. 2 Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. 3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; 4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.

The governments of the world are ordained by God, and their intended purpose (which is often abused or ignored) is to bring about justice. They do not bear the sword for nothing. They are supposed to use it. They are supposed to bring about swift and fair justice. God has ordained that governments rule by law, so that those who do evil will fear and be punished, and those who do good will be protected and blessed. Government is supposed to punish and deter criminals, and to protect everyone else.

This is the primary purpose for civil governments–LAW ENFORCEMENT. The primary duty of government is not welfare, the reallocation of wealth, maintaining roads, providing public utilities, or to educate our children. This does not mean that all civil governments are good. It means only that government, as an institution, was ordained by God for a purpose, and that He remains sovereign over them.

This is GOD’S stated purpose for government. Therefore, the government has a DIVINE MANDATE to wield the sword and to bring to justice those who are responsible in any way for committing crimes against its people. The role of government does not change in the church age, just because Jesus came and explained more fully how biblical ethics must apply to us personally.

Let’s look at some other reasons why we MUST conclude that the teachings and example of Jesus do not change what the biblical opinion of war and government ought to be-that Jesus’ teaching on these matters is consistent with the OT.

  • Jesus and the New Testament teach that being a soldier can be a honorable profession, and is not inconsistent with living a life that pleases God

Luke 3:14– And some soldiers were questioning him [John the Baptist], saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.”John does not say to the soldiers, “Get out of the military.” He reiterates that there are God-honoring “rules of engagement.” He admonishes them to not abuse their power and authority. But otherwise, he assumes they may remain in the military and please the Lord.

Acts 10:1-2, 4b – Now there was a certain man at Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort, 2 a devout man, and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people, and prayed to God continually…4 …And He [an angel of GOD] said to him, “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God.”

There is nothing to indicate that his profession or duties as a soldier were displeasing to God in any way.

Another indication that God condones war is that soldiers and military battles are used as a positive illustration of how we should live our lives as Christians.

2 Timothy 2:3-4 – Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4 No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier.

Ephesians 6:13 – Therefore, take up the full armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.

  • At the same time, personal acts of violence are not acceptable, only justice administered or, wars waged by, the appointed government–however, Jesus assumes that the government should do this

Matthew 26:51-52 – And behold, one of those who were with Jesus reached and drew out his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest, and cut off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.”

Jesus rebukes Peter for his personal act of violence, but recognizes the authority of the Roman government to bear the sword to punish those who misuse theirs. Jesus expected that earthly governments can and should “use the sword.”

John 18:36 – Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting, that I might not be delivered up to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”

Earthly kingdoms fight in order to defend themselves. Jesus assumes this is the case, and here endorses defensive war as right and proper for earthly kingdoms. Why? Because it is the God-given duty of governments to do just that. We saw this in Romans 13.

But what about Jesus’ teaching to love your enemies, turn the other cheek, and do unto others? Those teachings actually provide more reasons why we MUST conclude that the teachings and example of Jesus do not change what the biblical opinion of war and government ought to be.

  • Jesus’ teaching concerning personal ethics does not abrogate the right and authority of civil governments to wage a just war; in fact, it demands it!

First, we need to point out again that there is nothing inconsistent with the OT and the NT. Jesus’ personal ethic was an OT ethic, not a new teaching. Where was this ethic of non-retaliation taught first? The OT Law!

Leviticus 19:18 – You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.

If that ethic demands that Christians must not support war, then we must acknowledge that the Israelites were being held to the same ethic, and that therefore it was wrong for them to wage war at any point in their history. But again, God condoned and commanded war for the Israelites, and therefore we know that it was not wrong for them to support and participate in it.

There are other verses cited to support this view of “pacifism” for the Christian.

Matthew 5:39 – But I say to you, do not resist him who is evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Matthew 5:44 – But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.

Matthew 22:39 – The second is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Matthew 7:12 (NIV) – So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

Again, I must point out, that Jesus is teaching about how individuals ought to respond personally, not teaching about how governments are to function. This poignant reminder helps frame our thinking about how to apply this ethic of love.

Sometimes we hear the Golden Rule quoted to prove that we should not use military force against any people, that we are to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. But in the event of war we have to decide who the “others” are. Who will we “love” when injustices are being done–the lustful, murderous invaders who do not want us to resist them, or our own wives and children who need our protection (Loraine Boettner, The Christian Attitude Toward War, p. 30)?

In other words, we have a choice…who are you going to love, and how? Someone who is unilaterally anti-war is governed more by sentiment, emotion and opinion (or politics!?) than by the hard facts of life and an accurate understanding of the Bible. They overemphasize a false definition of love at the expense of justice and righteousness. To turn away from justice in the name of peace is not loving. It is actually refusing to love the ones suffering under the injustice. It is actually refusing to do unto others what you would have them do to you! Clearly, you would want to be rescued or defended if you were the one being brutalized or oppressed.

In obeying the command to love our neighbor (or even our enemy), we cannot possibly leave another neighbor at the mercy of a brutal aggressor when it is within our power to restrain or detain him. The logical conclusion of unilateral, unqualified, “anti-war” philosophy is to do away with all law enforcement altogether–thankfully few take it that far.

To go a step further, Jesus even recognized the morality and legal right to defend yourself if necessary and possible.

Luke 22:36, 38 – And He said to them, “But now, let him who has a purse take it along, likewise also a bag, and let him who has no sword sell his robe and buy one…” 38 And they said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” And He said to them, “It is enough.”

We are not to lack prudence (we are to be prepared and ready to defend), but we should also not be characterized as people who are “stockpiling weapons” because of government or religious “conspiracies.” I believe that Jesus’ teaching here is meant to be applied primarily to our personal attitudes, and apply most particularly in the context of being persecuted for religious reasons, and not for political or social reasons.

We will now look at one last reason that the teachings of Jesus and the NT should not change our attitude about war.

  • Jesus Himself will return to earth as a warrior and judge

In Revelation 19 there are clear statements that one day Jesus will return in judgment [the same, ‘turn the other cheek,’ ‘love your enemies,’ and, ‘do unto others’ Jesus].

Revelation 19:11, 14-15 – And I saw heaven opened; and behold, a white horse, and He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True; and in righteousness He judges and wages war…14 And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. 15 And from His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may smite the nations; and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty.

Jesus will reign in peace on the earth one day. And at the end of that reign (which will last 1,000 years) the nations of the earth will be deceived again by Satan (who will have been locked away for that 1,000 years), and because of the rebellious heart of man they will try to overthrow the only perfectly just and benevolent government man will have ever seen.

Revelation 21:4-8 – And He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away. 5 And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” 6 And He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. 7 He who overcomes shall inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. 8 But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”

In order to bring about this permanent and lasting peace, a war to put a just end to all wickedness must be waged first. Why? Because the only way to have lasting peace is to do away with the selfishness and the rebellion that drives all conflict. Jesus Himself will return as the Commander of the Lord’s Army. He is the “Lord of hosts,” and he will wage war, and conquer completely and finally the enemies of God. Anyone who categorically condemns war, and those who wage them, must answer to the ultimate divine Warrior, the King of kings, Jesus Christ.

So let me summarize our last two posts:

First, God condones, and even commands war as an instrument of justice in the world. That is clear as we read the Old Testament. Many people are less comfortable with concluding that God still approves and condones of war, because we do not have specific commands or revelation regarding His divine purposes. Nonetheless, His character never changes, even if we have less revelation to make us comfortable understanding His perspective on modern conflicts.

Second, nothing in the New Testament, or the teachings of Jesus-rightly understood-changes this general divine perspective. Although the New Testament emphasizes personal ethics, when it speaks of national issues, it is consistent with the Old Testament. And although the Old Testament emphasizes the application of ethics in the context of the national, civil government of ancient Israel, the law’s personal ethic is consistent with Jesus’ teaching (and, in fact, is the source of Jesus’ teaching). So His purposes for war and government as revealed in the OT are not only clear, they are reiterated in the New Testament.

This second point in today’s post was supported by the following:

(1) There is a divine, God-ordained, purpose for civil government.

(2) Jesus and the New Testament teach that being a soldier can be a honorable profession, and is not inconsistent with living a life that pleases God.

(3) At the same time, personal acts of violence are never acceptable, only justice administered, or wars waged, by the appointed government-however, Jesus assumes that the government should do this.

(4) Jesus’ teaching concerning personal ethics does not abrogate the right and authority of civil governments to wage a just war-in fact, it demands it.

(5) Jesus Himself will return to earth as a warrior and judge.

We recognize that these articles are short, and perhaps insufficient at points. We do think they provide a basic explanation of why the Bible teaches that no one should categorically conclude that all war is wrong.

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About Brian Sayers

Brian has been an elder, and staff pastor, at Christ Community Church since September of 2000. He is a 1998 graduate of The Master's Seminary (M.Div).

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